Wednesday, April 18, 2018

It's Not Even Past #18 - The Crisis of What is Art - Part 2 - Propaganda - Complete

(Roger Cohen clip, up to 21:53)

That was Roger Cohen of the New York Times speaking, I needn't clarify about what except to say that it was a lecture on Isaiah Berlin in the Age of Trump, our age, potentially defined by a thinker whose thoughts apply to every age. If this podcast keeps going indefinitely, then Isaiah Berlin will be mentioned again and again and again.

We ended the last broadcast at an arbitrary point, simply because the subject of this series of podcasts is too large to be summed up in any one half-hour. Then I got horribly sick and had to skip a week, but the arbitrary point on which we ended was with my mentioning of mediocre distractions, and in case you hadn't noticed, mediocre distractions are the nub of where we are today, the spoke around which it all turns, the essence of what makes the Age of Trump the Age of Trump, when our attention spans have so atrophied that we can't put together coherent thoughts that connect one day of our lives to the next and we therefore move from whatever captures our attention one day to whatever captures it the next (the irony of basing this podcast on almost exactly that idea is duly noted...).

Any meaningful achievement in the world that gives true satisfaction can't be a fleeting success that is bestowed from one day's work... to say an obvious truth that should not have to bare repeating but obviously needs to in this day and age. Meaningful, lasting satisfaction requires a span greater than we can focus on at any given moment, the ability to be frustrated by it, the ability to fall back in love with it, the ability for the dimensions of the relationship to broaden, deepen, widen, and also sometimes contract. It requires the ability to delay gratification and to focus on greater goals than can be achieved in any one given day, or perhaps any thirty given years. This is what it means to have a career, to be in a marriage, to raise a family, to build an organization. These are the things of which lasting satisfaction is made, and it doesn't seem as though the majority of Americans have enough ability these days to see those satisfactions through. There is sadly never a guarantee of joy at the end of an agonizing journey, but there is an unfair guarantee of joy's absence if we never embark on such a journey.

And it's for that reason that propaganda, like cant itself, like newspeak or bullshit or whatever else you want to call that megaphone of political indifference to truth and lies, is self-perpetuating. Propaganda, like advertising, depends on the lie that happiness is just over the next hill. It's message is not unlike advertising, but the materialism of advertising is relatively benign. Advertising is made to seem so evil by socialism, and tells you the obvious lie that you can fill the eternal hole in your life with a new soap or soft drink or car, but nobody ever truly believes the lie, and everybody knows that they can only be satiated by the product for five minutes before a mix of salt and sugar makes us crave another soft drink. But the materialism of advertising is pretty benign next to propaganda.

The lies of propaganda are so dangerous because their truth seems so plausible. Perhaps there is an invisible mechanism that keeps the poor poor, the oppressed oppressed, and perhaps the choices of individual human beings within the existing system have so little power that there is no recourse except to overthrow it.  Or perhaps the choices of human beings have so much power that only people who succeed are those who are deserving of success, and therefore, any change to create a more equitable system only serves to reward people who are undeserving. In both cases, once you view the world through that structure, everything becomes filtered through its worldview. Who's to say which worldview, if either, is right? But whether either worldview is correct, there are two gigantic apparatus at either end of the political spectrum designed to make sure that at least a hundred million politically active people on either side see nothing in the world except through the worldview that people want you to see who stand to benefit enormously from your myopia.

On the Right, does one really need to say what's there? Fox News, Drudge Report, Breitbart..., they're all facts of our lives. They're infotainment designed to give their viewers just enough correct information to make them righteously angry about the state of the world without the proper context as to why it's true - and those are on the days when the information they distribute is correct.  It is not socialism to point out that a free society depends on the news being distributed as a public good, not a business. These are propaganda outlets that also double as money generators for vulture capitalists. Just watch Fox News for ten minutes sometime. Are you watching news? Are you watching editorials? Or are you watching commercials? Fox News is statistically measured to be the highest network in all cable television for commercial clutter - 16 minutes 52 seconds per hour. And what are those ads? - which sells loans at interest rates that can go up to 335%. Ads for reverse mortgages that are supposed to save money yet lead to rates of required payment 25% higher than a conventional mortgage. Ads for, Gold investment that tells prospective investors the price of gold only ever goes up. Surely, you might reason, the viewers are not dumb enough to fall for these schemes. Well, they're certainly dumb enough to fall for Fox News. Furthermore, by airing so many of these commercials on Fox News, Fox lends its prestige and credibility, such as it is, to these shysters. The presence of shysters is not incidental to Fox News, the shysters are the fabric of the Fox News business model, which depends on a self-perpetuating cycle of viewers conditioned to be credulous enough to believe false political statements, and therefore willing to be consumers credulous enough to buy bad products, and therefore attracting advertisers to the network with as few moral scruples as the network executives and talent themselves.

If presented with this information, many Fox News watchers would simply shrug and say that CNN and MSNBC simply have an unspoken liberal bias while Fox News is implicitly more honest because it wears its conservative bias on its sleeve. There are two problems with that logic. The first, easier to fight, problem with that is that CNN and MSNBC are statistically demonstrative to be more factual in their reporting. They're not particularly impressive in their reporting, and when Fox News watchers point out that CNN and MSNBC are not particularly good at reporting the news, they're absolutely right. CNN and MSNBC are sadly not particularly impressive news outlets, but Fox News is much worse. Politifact, a non-partisan organization for accuracy in news unimpressively lists CNN, the best of the three major news networks, with 27% of their reporting being either mostly false, false, or their lowest rating: pants on fire. Believe it or not, that's the best reporting we get on the big three cable news networks. On MSNBC, it's much worse, a full 44% being at least mostly false. But on Fox News, 60% of their reporting is, at very least, mostly false, and 40% of their reporting is, at very least, completely false. Whatever news is, Fox News is demonstrably the opposite, it is a news organization specifically designed to spread false news, and to make lots of money for their investors from how they spread false news.

And that's only the smaller problem. The larger problem with Fox News and the like is this. I could tell Fox News watchers that the organization from which they get their news is designed to be a cocktail of outrage generated by a factory of misinformation, and they would tell me that, because it came from a place that wishes ill on views like those spread by Fox News, the source is biased, and therefore false. In the sense that people who believe Fox News is fake news are biased against it, people who watch Fox News are absolutely right about those who hate the network - they are biased against Fox News and all the reactionary political views associated with Fox. If a person is against falsehood, that person is, by definition, biased against falsehood, and that in itself is a bias. Therefore, if you only accept opinions as true which are unbiased against your worldview, you have become biased against the truth. There is very little need to talk about the bias of someone else's views unless you're trying to reorient the bias. To allege, as conservatives have for my entire lifetime, that the mainstream media has a liberal bias, is not a way of saying that they want to change the way the mainstream media reports news. It is, rather, a way of delegitimizing the mainstream media and making it seem as though factual reporting that comes to people without conservative editorializing is in itself liberal. Perhaps the reason for that is that, as Colbert famously said at the 2006 White House Press Correspondents Dinner, reality has a well-known liberal bias. But even if reality does not have such a terrible liberal slant, it would still be in the interests of Fox News and the Drudge Report and Breitbart and Town Hall and a hundred other sister sites and all of their financial and political backers to tell us that any news site that does not report you news with a giant right-wing editorial filter is liberally biased. This is why the right wing noise machine is self-perpetuating, and is the most blatant, dangerous breed of mass propaganda America has seen since the era of Father Coughlin - and so far proven far more durable than Coughlin, whose eminence in American life only lasted from 1929 to 39.

But don't be too quick to look down on Fox News watchers, and don't be too quick to think that the Left is not capable of mounting an editorial machine not too far down the road that wouldn't be just as or still more dangerous and duplicitous. The other side of the political spectrum has just as large a share of suckers that are lied to and cheated every day of their lives with still more demonstrable statistics of how they swallow their kool-aid. There is an emerging movement of the Left that is becoming no less dangerous, no less stupid, and has grown precisely because the right managed to demonize everything to its left - with moderation wreaking of liberals which wreak of progressivism which wreaks of socialism which wreaks of communism which wreaks of Stalinism. - and therefore since Conservatives have portrayed liberals so effectively as demons for so long, many people of a liberal disposition now see nothing wrong with even those qualities which conservatives rightly demonized. If condemning the most predatory practices of big business is equated with socialism, as so many conservatives have, socialism begins to seem much more appealing. If censure for the bloodiest practices of urban police forces is equated with allowance for mob rule, as so many conservatives do, violent uprisings against the police seem much more justified. And most importantly, if denunciation of US alliances with dictatorships is equated with foreign policy disasters, as so many millions of conservatives always have, then many liberal-minded people will feel justified in thinking that the United States deserves to have disaster befall it.

It's important not to get sidetracked and not to go down the byways of how these syllogisms may seem to people both right and left like straw man arguments. I'm sure that any conservatives or socialists listening to this podcast would point out that the last few sentences don't do even a semblance of justice to the points of view they've thought about seriously for their entire adult lives, only to come to conclusions that are as simple-minded as they would have been had they only thought about the problem for two minutes.

The point, rather, is precisely that these are straw man arguments, and these are precisely the kind of uncharitable bad faith to which both sides of worldwide discourse generally attribute to the other. But there was, once upon a time at least, a method of American discourse that insisted on something quite a bit more nuanced, and it's precisely this kind of nuance which has become the enemy of so much discourse.

When conservatives demonized those elite liberals in the mass media like the Kennedys and Clintons and Cuomos and Browns, whose staffers insisted on nuances that make big businesses practice their trade ethically, or policing that exhausts options before immediately resorting to violence, or insisting on diplomatic negotiations rather than escalations that inevitably risk war, by saying that Kennedys and Clintons and Cuomos and Browns are no different than socialists, and anarchists, and pacifists, they have birthed a modern left wing Frankenstein for which socialism, and anarchism, and pacifism, don't seem impossibly naive - and surely much more effective options than any option offered by those spineless liberals, who apparently are really just privileged conservatives who don't have enough vested interest in getting America to change, or else they wouldn't have let themselves get steamrolled again and again by authoritarian reactionaries like the Republican party. It's the ultimate tribute to the Republican party, they've birthed an enemy to the left of the Democratic party who hates them so much that they want to imitate Republicans far more than they do Democrats.

Bernie Sanders 'only' got twelve-million voters, and let's be generous and take it on faith that at very least a few million Bernie voters do not dream of a world without capitalism the way Christians once dreamt of a world without Jews; there are still millions of Bernie supporters who see capitalism as the problem and not the billions of flawed human beings who work within it yet still haven't come up with an economic system that works any better. The most intellectually active of them probably comprise the 1.2 million individual hits Jacobin magazine got last month, and at very least 2.7 million monthly pageviews.

But those who take Jacobin Magazine particularly seriously are, usually at least, a very specific type of person who's been through the ringer of the the modern humanities education, such as it is. Light on primary texts and heavy indeed on the critical theory that tells them why such primary texts are a waste of time. And because such texts are a waste of time, it's very easy for them to conscript online followers who share every Salon article that the few lucky enough to get journalism jobs are paid to write, and every Medium and Jezebel and Huffington Post article that the many unlucky enough to not be paid to write. The shorter the article, the less nuanced, the easier it is to understand, the more hits it gets, the more popularity the writer accrues, and therefore the Left intelligentsia can only reward a writer if they are more militant-than-thou.

This is a process that begins right at the university classroom. Now, before you think that I'm throwing my lot in with conservatives who make Universities their favorite demon, let me say that nobody should put much stock in critiques of universities from conservatives, because it's they who've done more than anyone else to make university life this way. They have done everything within their power to corrode intellectual discourse in American life, and a certain breed of intellectual conservative may expound the glories of the Great Books curriculum, but no movement could ever have done more in American life to destroy the university as an apolitical institution. Just think, for the moment, of Allan Bloom and his book that shook America in the 1980s, The Closing of the American Mind, which expounded the old school German ideas that universities must be maintained as inherently elite institutions that promote absolute moral values. We needn't expound on where that idea took the German intellectual class, but Bloom's vision of the university is of an institution that moves so slowly that it takes in barely any new ideas until they are no longer relevant - bereft of intellectual dynamism, with conclusions to which students are supposed to draw foregone. Bloom's vision of the university was the definition of a place subservient to a conservative political agenda. The result of the once famed 'culture wars' of the eighties and nineties was strip universities of any vestige of the once crucial term 'value free scholarship', which in this case means scholarship that has no political meaning. Conservatives said that they were trying to uphold the university as a humanistic institution, but whatever their intent, and I doubt their intent was anything like as a-political as they claimed, they provided the kindling that radical intellectuals used to burn the concept to the ground. In the conservative side of the culture wars, Great Books, rather than living texts whose potential meanings always deepen and broaden to provide us with new meanings from generation to generation, were reduced to depots of conventional wisdom that have no new meanings for eras with new concerns. Any professor who might interpret a text in a heterodoxical way was considered dangerous and had to be silenced, any potential student whose mind was independent enough to think of what he reads differently than ideal professors like Alan Bloom should not have been admitted to a good university in the first place, and if they passed through the admissions process with their independence of mind undetected, they had to be guided back to the supposed path of truth lest they corrupt this ideal university that moulds the minds of an intellectual elite whose education is self-selecting and self-sustaining, specifically programmed to make the students think of education as an elite process that only a very few have the intelligence and moral character to undergo, because if the students were not of a very specific intelligence and temperament and character, they might find meanings in what they read that should be forbidden.

Conservatives lit an intellectual forest fire, over which radical professors could grow fungi on the remains whose poison has only begun to truly manifest itself. The only place where scholarship is now considered apolitical is in the sciences, and who can doubt that there will soon be movements to politicize scientific truth too?

There will be plenty of time to rag on the left in the future of this podcast, so I'm not going to take as much time with it this week except for two paragraphs. To the socialists listening to this, the communists, the anarchists, the collectivists, the syndicalists, the constructors and deconstructors of personal politics whose names for what you believe have different names for each of you yet all seem to come to the same conclusions, please ask yourselves, what have you really done? For all the reading you've supposedly done of this or that critical theorist, how is it that you've all seem to come to the same conclusions about what the world is?

All those various theorists: Zizek, Derrida, Foucault, Butler, Jameson, Eagleton, and all the various Marxist and Frankfurt school predecessors on whose shaky shoulders they stand.... For all the apparent complexities and nuances in their thought which it apparently takes ten years of higher education to understand, why is it that a person needs ten years of higher education before all those various critical theories begin to seem different from each other? Why do their essential premises about how truth is only ever defined by powerful people seem so simple to understand that it almost seems simple-minded to the uninitiated? How is it that for all that talk about how the truth is a relative and hidden and only defined by people with power, you all seem to believe in certain truths so fervently that those who don't share your beliefs, or even the same zeal of your beliefs, are suspect in their moral character? Anyone who hasn't been through this ringer, who hasn't taken on their lion's share of America's 1.2 to 1.3 trillion dollars of student loan debt, has to wonder what sort of wool has been pulled from your eyes that it's worth acquiring beliefs that the texts you paid with your futures to study in university are apparently no more worthwhile than any pop song or comic book. And now that you can't get the paid and secure jobs in academia or journalism which so much higher education would seem to have promised you, you've decamped to writing various articles on the internet that expound these points of view without even being paid to do so. Have you really gone to university, or have you gone to a cult?

Somehow, at the exact same time that a generation of university students learn that the truth is relative, the graduates who take their educations most seriously behave in such a way that makes the truths they believe so absolute as to be fanatical. When beliefs go too far to one side, they unwittingly embrace elements of the other side as compensation.

Here's just a small example. Lately I've seen a series of internet memes, saying that only a white male could have friends who disagree with them politically, because the political issues at stake today are so important that only white males could never be personally affected by this.There's a little truth to this, who could deny it? But in the name of liberalism, we're encouraged to be illiberal on the deepest, most fundamentally personal level, right down to which friends and family we associate with. But as Fox News proves: a little truth is the most dangerous thing in the world, because it uses its appearance of veracity to cover up the deeper truths, and therefore, this is very nearly most poisonous propaganda there is. It's not just toxic, it's very, very dangerous. The toxicity is in how it peer pressures everyone to give up those friends and family who are insufficiently radical, lest their more political friends give them up for not doing so. But it's precisely because so many people, people with so much more power than the marginalized, have poisonous beliefs that so personally affect so many others in ways they don't realize that they have to be watched very carefully at a very personal level; that they have to be evangelized to, shown courtesy and warmth, so that their bubble of abstractions becomes the very real problems of very real people. The only other option is to let their hatreds fester unchanged and unwatched, which will only grow over time, until the marginalized become such a threat in their imaginations to their way of life that they have to be eliminated. It amazes me that people can live in 2018 America and not already see how far we are into that process.

Go ahead and judge conservatives poorly. I certainly do, I'm not ashamed of it, and in spite of any protests to the contrary, the way they judge liberals like me and people well to my left, whom they usually perceive as indistinguishable from me, thunders so loudly that nobody with liberal beliefs could possibly hear anything else. There is no doubt in my mind that being a conservative in today's political climate says something deeply unflattering about a person's moral character, and I have no doubt that the vast majority of them believe the same about anybody who isn't a conservative. But to say that the moral depravity of their beliefs is anything even close to as egregious as committing acts of moral depravity: thievery, abuse, fraud, is ridiculous. There are so many variables that constitute the makeup of a person's moral character, so many mitigating reasons everybody behaves the way they do, so many potential paths to redemption and so many ways to morally fail, that the flaws of a person's beliefs have to be the most forgivable of mortal sins. Poisonous beliefs may be a gateway of entitlement that allows people to commit egregious acts, but until any person him or herself crosses the line into committing acts so egregious, nobody should be considered as culpable as the offender. Let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone, we have all, in our various ways, been guilty of excusing people who poison the well of human behavior.

This is precisely why the arts are so important, because political differences of opinion only get in the way the real truth, which is that we will never what we want. Politics, whether on the international level, or on the level of most local career and friendships, are inevitable, and they will always come to grief. This is precisely reason the arts is so important. Because no matter how much we believe in our personal causes, we will never see what we want happen in our lifetimes, and if we do, we will come to regret that what we wanted was ever what we wanted.

Why do so many people in every generation think that somehow, the aspirations of our generation will be fulfilled when the aspirations of every generation before us have come to so little? What has happened lately in world history to make us think that somehow, the marginalized will get a fairer shake now than ever before? Was it the election of Donald Trump? Was it Brexit and the potential end of the EU forever? Was it watching every Christian nation in the world fold their hands when it came time to accept Muslim migrants? Was it watching Xi Jinping and Erdogan and Orban becoming lifetime dictators of their countries? Was it the acquittal of every single American policeman who was put on trial for the unnecessary murder of black men? And yet all through what is ostensibly bad news, there is a certain breed of radical whom, because the system is forced out of its complacent centrism into something more brutal, thinks the world is about to undergo a radical metamorphosis to the kind of fairer, more equitable place that it always seems just out of reach of being, yet always only becomes at a price tag too horrible for contemplation. The more power you have to enact your utopia on earth, whatever it is, the easier other utopians will find your world to exploit.

In case it's not obvious, I'm a personal believer that the key to the world being a livable place is to adjust your expectations accordingly, because the only place where it's relatively safe to demand greater expectations, let alone infinite ones, is art, and it's only possible in art for the audience, not the creator. We live in an era when the solutions to our problems are, in fact, the problems. When everyone's truth is equally valid, how then do we prove the truth? We could, of course, make alternative facts illegal to share, and set a government standard, but what then happens if a potential authoritarian comes along who realizes he can increase his power exponentially if he makes only alternative facts legal ones - some would say this is Trump's aim. Even if it is, I doubt he has the competence to do anything like that, but a smarter person reading Trump's playbook, say, an American Putin, could do so very well, and many people say that that's precisely what Putin has done in Russia.

There is no solution to the problems of the world, and if history is any guide, the closer we seem to a solution, the larger the retribution mother nature has planned for us. And this is why art is the consolation, the garden or laboratory where tiny plants of ideals can grow in a controlled environment. Even if the world is to complicated to let us make it much better than it is, at least there are small pockets of the world, a few hours at a time after the workday, where we can feel a little bit more in control.

It's doubly a shame that people believe so fervently these days that there exist possibilities in the world greater than the delights of art, because these humanities graduates who are now so in thrall to radical politics ostensibly went to school to be culturally engaged rather than politically. When we live in a society that so degrades artists and the arts, which tells them that practicing your craft as a painter or composer or novelist or even jazz musician and filmmaker and graphic artist, or a rapper for twenty years is of no greater demonstrable value to the world than a song with three chords you can write in five minutes, who can be surprised when people whose natural talent is for the humanities subordinate themselves to political causes that they don't have the natural ability to understand?

It really is extraordinary that, on the one hand, we live in this incredibly science and data based era, and because everything now has to be scientifically backed by data, there are a lot of assumptions, important assumptions that used keep the world afloat, that people refuse to take for granted. A traditional news source is unbiased? Show me the proof. A vaccine doesn't cause a disease? Show me the proof. And yet, even when you show them the proof, they show you proof they think as as real as your proof. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Senator from New York and the intellectual incarnation of the American center, used to say that 'people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.' And yet, the more facts we have at our disposal, the more facts people feel entitled to fabricate.

We live an era when truth is no longer considered objective and measurable, and therefore even facts are considered relative to the eye of the beholder. For reasons many and various, this has been a long time coming, and in an era when truth has been considered relative for all kinds of mediocre philosophical reasons, we can't be surprised that this is where we've arrived. I fear the world has quite a bit more spinning out of control, and spinning much more lethally, before it comes anywhere close to landing on its feet again.

On both sides of the propaganda divide, there is a gigantic cottage industry of artisans who work twelve hours or more every day to convince us to step through a dimensional doorway that forces us to surrender our mental faculties to a worldview that explains everything to us. None of their explanations are particularly convincing, but they're all much more convenient than following thoughts to conclusions that admit for nuance, and allow us all to rest easy with the knowledge that there is the demon with a name and an address who prevents the world from becoming better than it is. The commercials don't film themselves, the journalistic infotainment doesn't report itself, the critical commentaries of academia don't write themselves, the political events don't stage themselves. But politics is no revealer of mystery. In spite of all the ministrations of all these people devoted to turning politics into a religion, the fundamental mysteries of existence maintain their infinite unknowability. And if all the propaganda-industrial complex divested itself - if it left politics to community servants and technocrats who kept politics mundane and the secondary concern of life that it is during historical periods when quality of life is generally a little bit better, these misplaced artists could do the really exciting work illuminating the universe's mysteries rather than providing false explanations of it. Illumination which somehow always seems to be at its brightest when societies are at their height. Ask yourself sometime why it is that a Shakespeare came out of Elizabethan England and not Carolinean or Restoration England. Or if there is a correlation between the fact that Beethoven and Metternich could arise from the same Austria. Or why the Leonardos and Michelangelos of the High Renaissance came out of the peace that Lorenzo Medici brought to Italy in the late 1400s, and that by the time Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, there could be no true successors to them. Or, for that matter, why America had a brief period in the '50s when they were in thrall to the so-called high artists, plays like Death of a Salesman and Streetcar Named Desire, literary novels that became bestsellers like Catcher in the Rye and Invisible Man and Lolita, music like Aaron Copland's and Leonard Bernstein's, jazz rather than dance music became an abstract intellectual pursuit in Miles Davis and Coltrane and Monk and Brubeck, and even foreign cinema became very nearly mainstream for a hot second before 1965. And perhaps above all this: a traveling corpulent genius who struggled his whole career to get people to let him make movies, because when he did, the product was just too good to not be subversive: Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, Othello, Macbeth, Don Quixote, The Stranger, Mr. Arkadin, The Immortal Story, F for Fake, and, hopefully soon, let us pray, The Other Side of the Wind. During prosperous periods when politics is too boring for people to focus on, the educated at least turn to art, and the result almost always seems to be the art that defines that civilization for all time. It's highly probable that those circumstances can't be recaptured in later, more complex periods, but it's not like too many people are trying, so how would we know?

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